OK, so it’s official. Lionel Messi has eclipsed his league goal total from last season (28) with Sunday’s hat trick against Rayo Vallecano, which took him up to 30 in La Liga. His tally of 41 in all competitions means that he has already matched last year’s total, and we still have two months and change to go.
More importantly, beyond the “Messi-sphere,” the 6-1 drubbing of Rayo Vallecano allowed Barcelona to leapfrog Real Madrid (who were beaten the day before) into first place. With the clasico coming up at the Camp Nou on March 22, there is no better opportunity for Luis Enrique’s crew to pull away.
Momentum certainly looks to be going in that direction, too. Barcelona have won 15 of their last 16 games; go back to November 5 and it’s 25 victories in 28 games. You don’t want to get carried away (Paco Jemez’s Rayo and their all-out attack often play into the hands of an opponent like Barca) but Luis Suarez in particular is growing every week.
With Neymar absent and Messi quiet in the first half against Rayo, it was the Uruguayan who carried the attack, offering a continuous but mobile reference point for the creative forces in midfield. The fact that he can transform himself from work-horse frontman to virtuoso finisher is a huge bonus: He offers a blue-collar presence Barca really haven’t had since Samuel Eto’o was in his pomp.
As for Real Madrid, Saturday’s display against Athletic Bilbao was as flat as they come, particularly in the first hour or so, and only served to legitimize those who think the magic ran out in 2014. They went a goal down to a fine Aritz Aduriz header but had no discernible reaction until the last half-hour, when business did pick up, albeit in the most disjointed, “we-better-do-something” fashion. They still lost 1-0.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti denies it, but Madrid look physically spent. Toni Kroos appears an exhausted shadow of himself, which is what you’d expect from a guy who has played 69 games for club and country in the past 12 months. And when Asier Illarramendi lines up alongside you, odds are you won’t be able to coast through the game either.
Up front, their situation is even worse. Cristiano Ronaldo was ethereal and clearly isn’t going through a good spell, as evidenced by the fact that in four of the past eight games he hasn’t managed a single shot on target. Gareth Bale’s contribution was intermittent and Karim Benzema had arguably his worst game in months — he too looks overworked, with 66 matches in the past year for him.
Ancelotti’s critics say he should have rotated more early in the season and conserved his team’s energy. But look to the bench and apart from Isco, there’s not much there to inspire confidence. Raphael Varane is injury prone, Illarramendi’s limits are well-documented, Lucas Silva just arrived, Jese only recently returned after a long injury lay-off and the less said about Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s season, the better. The fact is, some of us had pointed out how this was an unbalanced and poorly constructed squad way back in September and October, especially after the departure of experienced blue-collar veterans like Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso. And those were club decisions.
Injuries have further limited Ancelotti’s room to maneuver, but they’re not really a mitigating factor. After all, they won 9 in a row after Luka Modric went down and Madrid’s poor form began while James Rodriguez and Sergio Ramos were still fit.
Ancelotti took it on the chin, as he always does. “It’s not a question of fatigue or attitude,” he said. “We’re not as sharp in the final third. We take too many touches, we don’t move the ball as quickly as we should and our movements aren’t as synchronized and crisp as they ought to be. That’s my responsibility. We need to fix that. And we need to fix it soon.”
If they don’t, all their eggs will be in the Champions League basket (Schalke permitting) by the end of the month.
Lyon not ceding Ligue 1 to PSG yet
It was all set up for Lyon to falter. On Friday, Marseille walloped Toulouse 6-1 to move within a single point in third place, showing that they’re still in the Ligue 1 title race. Then, on Saturday, Paris St. Germain demolished Lens 4-1 (but it could have been more) and moved past Lyon ahead of their game Sunday night at Montpellier.
This is where the smart money thought OL’s wonderful fairy tale was likely coming to an end. After all, they had won just once in their previous five outings and hadn’t scored more than a single goal since January. Alexandre Lacazette, their attacking juggernaut, hadn’t scored from open play in nearly two months. Nabil Fekir, their main creative force, had endured a tempestuous few weeks while trying to decidde whether he wants to represent France (the country of his birth) or Algeria, the land of his ancestors. (Reports on Monday suggest he has made his decision.)
Most of all though, OL remain one of the youngest teams in Europe. And kids, as we know, can be inconsistent and let you down. (Or, as Alan Hansen famously put it: “You can’t win anything with kids.”) We’d seen it the week before when they took the lead at Lille only to fall apart and lose 2-1.
They were away to sixth-place Montpellier and duly went a goal down. Yes, this was their cue to crumble. But then OL went off script, as young teams who don’t know their own limits sometimes do. They roared back with five unanswered goals in a 5-1 win; Lacazette scored two, but it was Fekir who stole the show. Twenty-one years old, 11 goals and seven assists in Ligue 1 this year, he’s turned more than a few heads.
Hubert Fournier’s homegrown kids have shown they have plenty of bottle and “bounce-back ability.” If they are to fall apart and leave Le Championnat to PSG, they won’t do it without a fight.
Don’t blame every fan when discussing pitch invasions
The Football Association has opened an investigation into events at Villa Park on Saturday, following Aston Villa’s 2-0 FA Cup sixth round win over West Bromwich Albion.
It was inevitable, and it’s the right thing to do. There were reports of West Brom fans ripping up seats and using them as missiles and, as Baggies boss Tony Pulis pointed out, you have to ask questions about the stewarding. He said it harked back to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s when England had a major problem with hooliganism. Those of us who remember it (the tail end of it, in my case) know where he’s coming from.
When you have a crowd running on the pitch (whether joyously or angrily) authorities lose control and bad things can happen. Nothing particularly serious occurred in this instance, thankfully — though Callum McManaman was reportedly struck by home supporters and Boaz Myhill clashed with fans who wanted to take a selfie with him — yet the fact that it could have is cause for concern.
So let’s find out exactly what happened and let’s see how we can avoid it in the future. But let’s also not demonize thousands of Villa supporters, let alone start throwing banning orders around.
Pitch invasions (and their indoor cousin, storming the court) are generally celebratory affairs. Fans get carried away because they’re happy or relieved or simply need an outlet for their emotions. It’s passion spilling over; it’s not calculated violence or mayhem, and that’s what separates it from hooliganism.
Aston Villa beat a local rival twice in four days and reached the semifinal of the FA Cup after years with little to cheer about. You can understand without condoning. You can also condemn without needing to throw the book at supporters.
Napoli throw away yet another lead
Who’s the goateed guy living in a hotel next to Napoli’s Castevolturno training ground and impersonating Rafa Benitez? Presumably some kind of doppleganger, because it sure as heck can’t be the same man we saw at Valencia or Liverpool.
That old-time version of Rafa had a knack for organized, stout defending. He knew how to take the lead and then stifle the opposition, sometimes hitting them and again on the counter. When his teams went into lockdown mode, you felt safe.
This one has presided over teams with Keystone Kops-esque defensive displays. And, crucially, he’s showing an inability to nurse leads. It happened again at home against Inter on Sunday night. Napoli could easily have been two or three goals up at half-time. Every time they won the ball back, the likes of Marek Hamsik and Gonzalo Higuain cut through the Inter lines like a spoon through porridge (which is about as mobile as the nerazzurri looked at times). The goals came in the second half, courtesy of Hamsik and Higuain, and they were special. Napoli 2-0 up, easy peasy. Shut the barn door.
Except they didn’t. A scrambled goal and a late Mauro Icardi penalty (with a Panenka flourish, no less) and Inter snatched a point. You’d want to suggest it was down to Roberto Mancini’s brilliant tactical move swapping Hernanes for Marcelo Brozovic, but really, it was a case of Napoli throwing it all away. Again.
Dortmund’s momentum stalls at Hamburg
Two points dropped for Borussia Dortmund away to Hamburg after a 0-0 draw. The game got physical early on and Jurgen Klopp’s men had no answers. “At least nobody got injured,” Klopp said bitterly afterwards. He might have added “at least Reus is fit” given that his injury midweek in the Cup had many fearing the worst.
The gap with fourth place is now up to 10 points with just 10 games to go. That’s probably too much for a team that still needs to travel to Wolfsburg and Moenchengladbach (second and third in the table) and still needs to play Bayern. And that only makes next week’s Champions League clash with Juventus (BVB are 2-1 down from the first leg) loom that much larger.
Did Papiss Cisse get a raw deal?
So Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse both get six match bans for the spitting incident in last week’s Premier League clash between Manchester United and Newcastle. (Cisse got an extra game because he’d already received a ban for violent conduct this season, bringing his suspension to seven matches).
The Senegalese striker, who clearly spat in reaction to Evans, accepted the charge and issued an unreserved apology to everyone from teammates to Evans to his club, to fans and to everyone who saw the incident. Meanwhile Evans said he spat at the ground and that he did it instinctively, without thinking about it or without realizing that he was doing it.
I have no idea whether Evans is telling the truth and whether what he did was entirely unintentional or not. But the FA evidently didn’t buy his defense or they wouldn’t have banned him for six games.
That part raises another question. Given that Cisse’s spitting was a reaction to Evans, once you conclude (as the FA did) that Evans’ spit was intentional, shouldn’t that be a mitigating factor in Cisse’s punishment? Particularly since he apologized and admitted his guilt almost straight away?
Atletico stumble, but Simeone not bothered
Diego Simeone seemed content despite letting the lead slip and having to settle for a 1-1 home draw with Valencia on Sunday night. “It was a fair result and it keeps us on track for our seasonal goal, which is third place,” he said.
You don’t often hear the manager of the defending champions speak so openly (and negatively) about what’s required of his team. But then again, Simeone can do no wrong right now. A different manager might get accused of lack of ambition, but nobody in their right mind would level such charge at Atletico’s boss.
Atleti had every chance to win (and would have if Tiago hadn’t somehow hit the bar from a few feet out) against an aggressive and well-organized Valencia side who remain a single point behind them. Obviously a victory would have been better, but a closer look at the state of the team suggests this wasn’t a bad point.
Simeone was without Antoine Griezmann, Miranda and Saul, while was Koke just returning from injury and is clearly not yet fit. Throw in Simeone’s decision to drop Mario Mandzukic (the jury’s out as to whether it was for disciplinary reasons or tactical ones) and it was always going to be tricky.
Rudi Garcia, Roma fading fast
Now everybody is giggling at Roma boss Rudi Garcia for suggesting way back in October, following the giallorossi losing 3-2 at Juventus, that his team would definitely win the title.
After the insipid scoreless draw at Chievo this weekend, Roma are now eight points back and Juventus have a chance to extend the lead to 11 if they beat Sassuolo at home Monday night. It’s easy to mock him, but you can see what he was trying to do at the time.
What to make of his words after the disappointing result? “Sometimes you lose a game and you still find a way to be encouraged,” he said. “But this draw … this was unsettling … this was disturbing. I didn’t recognize my team out there … and it’s the first time it has happened since I’ve been here.”
Brutally honest. Roma have lost their way but if they don’t find it in double-quick time, they may lose a place in next year’s Champions League too.
Bas Dost didn’t score!
No Bas Dost watch this week. Well, except for these words you’re reading now. He failed to score away to Augsburg as Wolfsburg fell 1-0. That extends his goal drought to 211 minutes.
First signs of the inevitable regression to the mean?
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